Review: Altec Lansing inMotion iM9
At a Glance
A couple years ago, Altec Lansing got the portable iPod speaker market going with the original inMotion. Since then, the company has dramatically expanded the inMotion line, which now consists of the iM3, iM4, iM5, iM7, iM9, iM11, iMT1, iMX2, and iMmini, as well as the original model, now called the iMplus. (Don’t try to make sense of the model numbers—Altec Lansing has told Playlist that there’s no real method to the naming scheme. Indeed, the new iM9 is smaller and more affordable than the iM7 but larger and more expensive than the iM11; the iM5 fits somewhere between the iM3 and iM11.)
Although we liked the $180 inMotion iM3 when we reviewed it back in 2004, since then it and the less expensive models in the inMotion line have faced a good deal of competition from other vendors; decent systems, such as Logic 3’s i-Station can be found for under $100, and speakers that surpass the iM3 are available for less money—namely, the $150 mm50 from Logitech. Altec Lansing has released a number of systems in the $100 to $150 range (the iM4, iM5, and iM11), but we’ve continued to recommend the mm50 as the best bang for your buck.
The new Altec Lansing inMotion iM9 may change that for many buyers. Although, at $200, it’s more expensive than Logitech’s excellent offering, the iM9 offers performance—specifically, bass response and power—not found in any other portable system we’ve seen for under $200. And its rugged design should help it stand up to the rigors of travel.
Built for bumping
The first thing you notice about the iM9 is its design. Instead of the gloss-white or gloss-black plastic of other inMotion models, the iM9 has a thick, matte-black plastic black, a black metal speaker grill on the front, and—most significant—thick rubber all the way around the sides, top, and bottom. Silver trim provides accents. Altec Lansing says the iM9 is “shock-resistant,” and that seems like an apt description; with the exception of Sonic Impact’s iFusion, which is built into a water-resistant, rigid case, the iM9 feels sturdier than any iPod speaker system we’ve tested.
Although smaller than Altec Lansing’s award-winning inMotion iM7 (a $250 system that’s more “transportable” than portable), the iM9 is still quite large as portable speaker systems go: a chunky 11 inches wide by almost 8 inches high by 3 inches deep. And at approximately 4 pounds with batteries, the iM9 adds some heft to a suitcase or carry-on. Perhaps recognizing this, Altec Lansing includes a custom-fitting sling backpack with the iM9. The pack holds the iM9 and a book or similar cargo in its main pocket; your iPod, the system’s AC adapter, and a few cables in a smaller front pocket; and a water bottle in a mesh side pocket. The bag also has a handle on top and a mobile-phone pocket on its shoulder strap. And although the iM9 itself doesn’t have a true handle, an indentation on the top-rear of the iM9 makes it easy enough to pick up.
The iM9’s limited controls are located on the top of the unit: A power button (which glows purple-blue when the unit is turned on) volume up and down buttons, and an eject button for the system’s iPod cradle (see below). Unfortunately, unlike the less expensive inMotion iM3 and most other iPod speaker systems in this price range, the iM9 doesn’t include a wireless remote control. I’m also not a fan of the iM9’s volume buttons, which are difficult to press, and the fact that when you turn the system on, its volume ramps up to a much louder level than when it was turned off, sometimes painfully so.
Like its iM7 big brother, the iM9 holds your iPod securely in a dock-connector cradle that looks and works much like the door of a cassette deck: Press the eject button and the door swings open; place your iPod in the cradle and close the door to lock it. When the door is open, a slider inside lets you adjust the cradle’s depth to better fit various iPod sizes; a variety of spacers and adapters are also included. Between the adapters and the cradle’s adjustable depth, the iM9 accommodates any dock-connector iPod, including the nano and mini. The front of the cassette-deck-like door is open to allow access to the iPod’s controls; however, note that this leaves the iPod’s face unprotected, so you’ll want to be careful not to let anything bump or strike the front of the unit.
On the back of the iM9, behind a rubber door, is a stereo headphone minijack; a composite video jack to display your iPod’s pictures and video on a TV; Apple’s dock port to sync your iPod with your computer; a 1/8-inch auxiliary-input jack for connecting an external audio source (a mini-to-mini cable is included); and a jack for connecting the included AC adapter. Just below the door is a swing-out stand for placing the iM9 upright. The stand is actually quite small—about 1.5 inches long and 4.2 inches wide—and I was initially concerned that it wouldn’t be stable given the iM9’s size and weight. I was pleasantly surprised that the system had no stability problems; the only time it felt at all off-balance was when I put it on plush carpet.
As with other inMotion models, the iM9’s AC adapter is an international model. However, unlike other inMotions, the iM9 doesn’t include a set of international wall plugs; only a US plug is included. (This despite the fact that the iM9’s advertising copy states, “Universal power supply with international plugset.”) The system can also be powered by 4 C batteries, which the company estimates will provide 24 hours of playback; in my testing, this was a fair estimate, as I got over 20 hours of audio out of the iM9. Like other inMotion systems, the iM9 automatically turns off if no audio signal is detected for three minutes, and the system charges your iPod when plugged into AC power. Unfortunately, like too many other iPod speaker systems, turning off the iM9 doesn’t automatically pause or turn off your iPod; if you’re listening off battery power and forget to turn off the iPod itself, you could come back a few hours later to a dead iPod battery.
Bumpin’ sound, too
The iM9’s bigger size and heavier weight—relative to most other portable iPod speaker systems, at least—are due mostly to the system’s speakers and Class D amplifier. Instead of two or four small drivers, the iM9 features a 1-inch tweeter and 2.5-inch midrange/bass driver on each side (left/right). Combined with the heftier amplifier, the result is sound quality that’s much fuller than any other truly portable system we’ve tested. (We consider Altec Lansing’s iM7 and Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi to be “transportable” rather than portable given their size and weight.) Bass response is especially impressive; although the iM9 can’t produce the lowest notes, it extends low enough that music has surprising impact—even a bit of “thump.” Midrange is also good for a portable system, and the iM9 can easily fill a typical bedroom, office, or hotel room to uncomfortable volume levels without distorting. It won’t match the maximum volume of the iM7 or iPod Hi-Fi, but I haven’t found anything louder in this small a package.
Treble, on the other hand, isn’t quite as clear as that of some smaller systems, such as Logitech’s mm50. (Unlike the more expensive iM7, the iM9 doesn’t include bass or treble controls, although the iPod’s own EQ does affect the iM9’s output, so those looking for a bit more detail can enable the iPod’s Treble Booster setting.) Similarly, the mm50 provides better stereo separation both because its speakers are farther apart and because of its “3D Stereo” processor; the iM9’s stereo separation and soundstaging are more typical of small portable speakers. And I did hear a very slight background “hiss” with the iM9 at very low volume levels or during the silence between tracks. Unfortunately, this is something we’ve experienced with many portable speaker systems. Thankfully, this noise is fairly quiet on the iM9; I noticed it only late at night in a quiet room.
In fact, the iM9’s overall sound quality is good enough, and the system has enough presence, that it’s reasonable to compare it to a good “desktop” system such as Bose’s $300 SoundDock. Although the SoundDock provides better overall tonal balance, better stereo separation, and can play a bit louder without distortion, the iM9 has slightly better bass response and a warmer overall sound. I suspect that most people will prefer the SoundDock in terms of sound quality, but if you’re considering a SoundDock for desktop use, for $100 less the iM9 still sounds good and gives you the added bonus of portability. (In terms of other features, the SoundDock includes a wireless remote, whereas the iM9 provides input/output options unavailable on the SoundDock.)
One of the reasons we’ve been fans of Logitech’s mm50 is that it makes an excellent compromise between portability and sound quality in an iPod speaker system—small enough to fit in a backpack or suitcase, it nevertheless provides sound quality that stands out from that of similarly-sized systems. With the inMotion iM9, the mm50 finally has some competition. Although the iM9 is a bit bigger and heavier, it’s still portable while offering richer, fuller sound than any truly portable system we’ve tested. It can’t match the treble detail and stereo separation of the mm50, but it’s clearly superior in bass, volume, and overall presence. The iM9’s cradle keeps your iPod safer than the open dock used by most iPod speaker systems, and its rugged design means the system should hold up to frequent use; only Sonic Impact’s i-Fusion offers more travel protection, and that system requires a bit of “unpacking” each time you want to listen—with the iM9, you just turn it on and press play. The included backpack is a nice bonus that makes the iM9 easy to take along.
If you don’t need a wireless remote control—an unfortunate omission given the $200 price tag—and your audio tastes tilt towards bass and away from treble, the iM9 is an excellent speaker system for the iPod. Its sound quality is so much fuller, and bass response so much better, than other truly portable iPod speaker systems that it easily earns our Playlist Pick designation.